Picks and Pans Review: Vintage Contemporary Artists

updated 03/07/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/07/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

by various authors

Art books have been getting out of hand. Oversize and overpriced, they are threatening to crush the coffee tables they're designed for. The more lavish the packaging, the more artists can appear depersonalized by excessively proportioned books that overshadow rather than present their work. This series, however, is made up of modestly priced and reasonably sized paperbacks that are light enough to hold in one hand and, best of all, readable. David Salle, Francesco Clemente, Eric Fischl and Robert Rauschenberg, all big guns of the modern art scene, are the first four artists to be featured. In old Paris Review style each is interviewed by a critic on intimate terms with his work—Salle by Peter Schjeldahl, Fischl by Donald Kuspit, Clemente by Rainer Crone and Georgia Marsh and Rauschenberg by Barbara Rose. The pairings make for an agreeable stroll through the artists' lives and work. But sometimes the questions are so discreetly turned as to appear toothless. David Salle, known for his oversize canvases of nude women in suggestive poses, is the most controversial of the lot. Although he once worked in the layout department of a skin magazine, he rejects the thought that his subjects' poses are pornographic. They stem, he says, from "sympathetic identification." Salle, who comes across as a hyperintellectual artiste terrible, warms up when he talks about his theatrical collaboration with dancer-choreographer Karole Armitage. (She's his fiancée.) Fischl is a quieter, more soft-spoken presence. His art has emerged from his past, a youth spent in the commuter town of Port Washington, N.Y., a "suburban paradise," shadowed by the tragedy of his mother's alcoholism. Today, Fischl paints troubled adolescents adrift in anonymous suburban landscapes—a teenage boy masturbating in an empty child's wading pool, for instance. Clemente emerges as the thoughtful and dreamy hero of Italian Neo-expressionism, who says he remembers being 2 years old: "It was like a prehistoric period: enlightened, static. I see myself as surrounded by this gallery of shadows." The legendary vitality of Robert Rauschenberg, on the other hand, leaps off the page. He describes, for instance, how he "wrapped" corpses during his wartime stint in the Navy. In the end he became an artist because it was what he had to do. "Some of us had no alternative," he says, "but I would have made a great cabdriver." Editor Elizabeth Avedon came up with the idea for the Contemporary Artists series. Her father-in-law, Richard, took the striking black-and-white cover photographs. (Vintage, $9.95 and $10.95)

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